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A Place of One’s (Work’s) Own

A Place of One’s (Work’s) Own

A Place of One's (Work's) Own

    I’m moving this month, and one of the things I’m looking for in a new apartment, even though I live alone, is a second bedroom where I can put up an office. My current place is a small 1-bedroom, and while there is a little computer “nook” in one corner of the living room, it’s just not working for me.

    I’d noticed my productivity falling off soon after I moved in, but having just gone through a break-up, I assumed it was just normal post-relationship trauma and that it would bounce back once I got back on my feet.

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    It hasn’t.

    For a long time I told myself I was just unusually busy, but that’s not it – my workload hasn’t increased. It wasn’t until the last few weeks that I’ve realized: I felt busier than usual because I wasn’t getting as much done. Where I used to be on schedule, or even ahead, with most of my work, I’ve been rushing to finish things at the last minute, which has kept me perpetually on the cusp of being behind, and occasionally good and fully late.

    One of the biggest factors in all this is not having a clearly defined workspace. My apartment is simply too small – I’ve been here 10 months and I’ve still got a wall of boxes that I haven’t been able to unpack! But the worst part is that I’ve ended up using the same small space to eat, work, and relax in. And that’s simply no good.

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    Here’s the thing: when you live and work in the same place, both living and working suffer. When you’re just trying to relax – say, by watching a movie or reading on the couch – your work-life is still there. And when you’re trying to get some work done, your daily life is all around you – the stack of magazines under the coffee table, the TV, the stereo, the book you’re reading draped over the sofa arm.

    We get conditioned by certain places. Sitting down in an upright chair at a desk primes us to work; sinking into a sofa tells the body that it’s time to relax. When we mix the two – I’ve been working on the sofa a lot with my laptop – the signals get crossed, and the mind  tries to go in two ways at once.

    So, for instance, last month I taught an evening class four nights a week at the community college. I’d get home at around 9:30 or 10:00 pm and pick up my book or switch on the TV. But every night, this little knot of tension would rise up in my chest, this anxious feeling that I was forgetting something, that I was slacking off. In the daytime, when I was actually working, I’d keep getting drowsy, or my mind would wander, or I’d be tempted to check the TV – you know, just to see.

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    This isn’t a quirk of my personality. Well, not just a quirk of my personality. Psychologists have found consistently that environmental cues can trigger certain states of mind in us, making us work harder or move more slowly.

    In a study at Stanford, for instance, a group of subjects was primed with objects related to business and office life (like boardroom tables and briefcases) while a control group was primed with neutral objects (kites, toothbrushes). Tests performed after the priming showed that those whose minds had been directed towards business became more competitive and less cooperative than those whose priming was not business-oriented.

    In practical terms, that means that just seeing the accoutrements of business life can make us more competitive – which is good, since usually when we’re around such objects we’re in the business world where we need to be more competitive.

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    Priming can have all sorts of odd effects. It can make young people move more slowly (after unscrambling sentences containing words like “Florida”, “wrinkled”, and “gray”); it can make people more likely to clean up after themselves (in a room scented with cleaning fluid); it can even make us smarter (students asked to picture themselves as a professor scored higher on a cognitive tests than students asked to picture themselves as a soccer hooligan)!

    So what cues are priming me when I sit down to work in the same space where I relax, or vice versa? My pencil cup and laser printer might be telling me “it’s workin’ time!” while my cozy blanket and TiVo remote suggest “it’s playtime!”.

    It’s clearly important to keep these spaces – and their signals – better-defined. If I were moving in today, I think I would have divided the room up into a clear relaxing area and working area. Instead, I’ll be moving soon, and my first priority is a clear working area, a second bedroom that’s “work only” so I can “go to work” in the morning and have some sense of separation from the rest of my life – and when I’m done, a place I can leave and “come home” from.

    By the way, as a single guy, I often eat dinner on my sofa as well. Which may be why I’m always hungry when I’m working…

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    Last Updated on September 18, 2019

    How to Take Notes Effectively: Powerful Note-Taking Techniques

    How to Take Notes Effectively: Powerful Note-Taking Techniques

    Note-taking is one of those skills that rarely gets taught. Almost everyone assumes either that taking good notes comes naturally or, that someone else must have already taught about how to take notes. Then, we sit around and complain that our colleagues don’t know how to take notes.

    I figure it’s about time to do something about that. Whether you’re a student or a mid-level professional, the ability to take effective, meaningful notes is a crucial skill. Not only do good notes help us recall facts and ideas we may have forgotten, the act of writing things down helps many of us to remember them better in the first place.

    One of the reasons people have trouble taking effective notes is that they’re not really sure what notes are for. I think a lot of people, students and professionals alike, attempt to capture a complete record of a lecture, book, or meeting in their notes — to create, in effect, minutes. This is a recipe for failure.

    Trying to get every last fact and figure down like that leaves no room for thinking about what you’re writing and how it fits together. If you have a personal assistant, by all means, ask him or her to write minutes; if you’re on your own, though, your notes have a different purpose to fulfill.

    The purpose of note-taking is simple: to help you work better and more quickly. This means your notes don’t have to contain everything, they have to contain the most important things.

    And if you’re focused on capturing everything, you won’t have the spare mental “cycles” to recognize what’s truly important. Which means that later, when you’re studying for a big test or preparing a term paper, you’ll have to wade through all that extra garbage to uncover the few nuggets of important information?

    What to Write Down

    Your focus while taking notes should be two-fold. First, what’s new to you? There’s no point in writing down facts you already know. If you already know the Declaration of Independence was written and signed in 1776, there’s no reason to write that down. Anything you know you know, you can leave out of your notes.

    Second, what’s relevant? What information is most likely to be of use later, whether on a test, in an essay, or in completing a project? Focus on points that directly relate to or illustrate your reading (which means you’ll have to have actually done the reading…). The kinds of information to pay special attention to are:

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    Dates of Events

    Dates allow you to create a chronology, putting things in order according to when they happened, and understand the context of an event.

    For instance, knowing Isaac Newton was born in 1643 allows you to situate his work in relation to that of other physicists who came before and after him, as well as in relation to other trends of the 17th century.

    Names of People

    Being able to associate names with key ideas also helps remember ideas better and, when names come up again, to recognize ties between different ideas whether proposed by the same individuals or by people related in some way.

    Theories or Frameworks

    Any statement of a theory or frameworks should be recorded — they are the main points most of the time.

    Definitions

    Like theories, these are the main points and, unless you are positive you already know the definition of a term, should be written down.

    Keep in mind that many fields use everyday words in ways that are unfamiliar to us.

    Arguments and Debates

    Any list of pros and cons, any critique of a key idea, both sides of any debate or your reading should be recorded.

    This is the stuff that advancement in every discipline emerges from, and will help you understand both how ideas have changed (and why) but also the process of thought and development of the matter of subject.

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    Images

    Whenever an image is used to illustrate a point, a few words are in order to record the experience.

    Obviously it’s overkill to describe every tiny detail, but a short description of a painting or a short statement about what the class, session or meeting did should be enough to remind you and help reconstruct the experience.

    Other Stuff

    Just about anything a professor writes on a board should probably be written down, unless it’s either self-evident or something you already know. Titles of books, movies, TV series, and other media are usually useful, though they may be irrelevant to the topic at hand.

    I usually put this sort of stuff in the margin to look up later (it’s often useful for research papers, for example). Pay attention to other’s comments, too — try to capture at least the gist of comments that add to your understanding.

    Your Own Questions

    Make sure to record your own questions about the material as they occur to you. This will help you remember to ask the professor or look something up later, as well as prompt you to think through the gaps in your understanding.

    3 Powerful Note-Taking Techniques

    You don’t have to be super-fancy in your note-taking to be effective, but there are a few techniques that seem to work best for most people.

    1. Outlining

    Whether you use Roman numerals or bullet points, outlining is an effective way to capture the hierarchical relationships between ideas and data. For example, in a history class, you might write the name of an important leader, and under it the key events that he or she was involved in. Under each of them, a short description. And so on.

    Outlining is a great way to take notes from books, because the author has usually organized the material in a fairly effective way, and you can go from start to end of a chapter and simply reproduce that structure in your notes.

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    For lectures, however, outlining has limitations. The relationship between ideas isn’t always hierarchical, and the instructor might jump around a lot. A point later in the lecture might relate better to information earlier in the lecture, leaving you to either flip back and forth to find where the information goes best (and hope there’s still room to write it in), or risk losing the relationship between what the professor just said and what she said before.

    2. Mind-Mapping

    For lectures, a mind-map might be a more appropriate way of keeping track of the relationships between ideas. Now, I’m not the biggest fan of mind-mapping, but it might just fit the bill.

    Here’s the idea:

    In the center of a blank sheet of paper, you write the lecture’s main topic. As new sub-topics are introduced (the kind of thing you’d create a new heading for in an outline), you draw a branch outward from the center and write the sub-topic along the branch. Then each point under that heading gets its own, smaller branch off the main one. When another new sub-topic is mentioned, you draw a new main branch from the center. And so on.

    The thing is, if a point should go under the first heading but you’re on the fourth heading, you can easily just draw it in on the first branch. Likewise, if a point connects to two different ideas, you can connect it to two different branches.

    If you want to neaten things up later, you can re-draw the map or type it up using a program like FreeMind, a free mind-mapping program (some wikis even have plug-ins for FreeMind mind-maps, in case you’re using a wiki to keep track of your notes).

    You can learn more about mind-mapping here: How to Mind Map: Visualize Your Cluttered Thoughts in 3 Simple Steps

    3. The Cornell System

    The Cornell System is a simple but powerful system for increasing your recall and the usefulness of your notes.

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    About a quarter of the way from the bottom of a sheet of paper, draw a line across the width of the page. Draw another line from that line to the top, about 2 inches (5 cm) from the right-hand edge of the sheet.

    You’ve divided your page into three sections. In the largest section, you take notes normally — you can outline or mind-map or whatever. After the lecture, write a series of “cues” into the skinny column on the right, questions about the material you’ve just taken notes on. This will help you process the information from the lecture or reading, as well as providing a handy study tool when exams come along: simply cover the main section and try to answer the questions.

    In the bottom section, you write a short, 2-3 line summary in your own words of the material you’ve covered. Again, this helps you process the information by forcing you to use it in a new way; it also provides a useful reference when you’re trying to find something in your notes later.

    You can download instructions and templates from American Digest, though the beauty of the system is you can dash off a template “on the fly”.

    The Bottom Line

    I’m sure I’m only scratching the surface of the variety of techniques and strategies people have come up with to take good notes. Some people use highlighters or colored pens; others a baroque system of post-it notes.

    I’ve tried to keep it simple and general, but the bottom line is that your system has to reflect the way you think. The problem is, most haven’t given much thought to the way they think, leaving them scattered and at loose ends — and their notes reflect this.

    More About Note-Taking

    Featured photo credit: Kaleidico via unsplash.com

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